Four years ago, the Hamilton County Schools district was in turmoil. Its superintendent had resigned, and an assistant superintendent was the interim leader of a shaken administration. A case of rape involving basketball players still was being adjudicated, and lawsuits related to it and other matters were pending. Academic progress was minimal. And the district was a year away from electing a new superintendent.
That August, voters ousted three Board of Education members and re-elected a fourth. Now, with the district much improved under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson, two of those first-term members are seeking re-election, one of those with no opposition (Tiffanie Robinson in District 4), and one is not. And the re-elected member in 2016 is now seeking her fifth term.
Below, we offer our endorsements for the competitive seats in the nonpartisan races for the board. Election day is Aug. 6, and today is the first day of early voting.
DISTRICT 1 — Rhonda Thurman
Although we didn't support her four years ago, we believe incumbent Rhonda Thurman is the individual most North Hamilton County residents want on the school board, and we endorse her candidacy for a fifth term.
We have long said every board needs a Thurman, someone who will not go along to get along, someone who will question or challenge the status quo, someone who will ask if money is being spent wisely, someone will advocate for her constituents first.
Thurman says she is a known quantity "who will do what I said I would do." She is unashamedly on the side of the taxpayer in fighting for the school board to be "fiscally responsible" and says it is "important [for the board] to live within its means."
Not interested in being the ninth vote in 9-0 board votes, she questions why the district must hire principals from outside Hamilton County, why the district administrative staff has grown significantly since she joined the board in 2004, says the recent facilities master plan didn't "make a lick of sense" for her district, maintains teachers would more prefer to be trusted to manage their classrooms than receive raises, claims student discipline goes a long way toward student learning and plainly says students shouldn't have to wear masks if they return to school (a point on which we disagree).
Her opponent, Stephen Vickers, is a data analyst with a child in District 1 schools. He says Thurman is a "career politician," while he has a "vested interest" in the schools.
Neither candidate believes a tax increase should be on the near horizon for schools, and, other than on whether the incumbent is an effective school board member, did not differ widely on goals and priorities for the district, its teachers and its students.
DISTRICT 2 — Tom Decosimo
Four years ago in this district covering Signal Mountain and Red Bank, a local advocacy organization used its influence to defeat then-school board chairman Dr. Jonathan Welch, one of the ablest members of the board, by 98 votes. The recipient of that assistance was former parochial school teacher Kathy Lennon, whose votes as a board member largely lined up with the advocacy organization's desires.
Lennon opted not to seek a second term due to health reasons but is strongly backing her disciple, Marco Perez, a small business owner and consultant. He is opposed by businessman and charitable advocate Tom Decosimo.
We prefer Decosimo for the seat in the open race because of his business experience, his ability to recruit solutions from a wide range of community partners and his desire for an efficiently run school district.
A recent debate co-sponsored by the Times Free Press did not expose major differences in the two candidates' aspirations for the schools but did indicate Perez generally would be in agreement with the district desires and Decosimo more likely to ask questions, debate policy and seek creative solutions.
If boards are filled with individuals who toe the district line, its members become unnecessary and the community is not well served.
The district race's only flashpoint came a month ago when Decosimo suggested that youth protesting in favor of the Black Lives Matter organization — with a clenched fist for a logo — might have used their time more wisely. He now says he had no problem with their expressing their freedom of speech, but maintains — in concert with many — that the protests had "an element creeping in that is very dangerous."
Perez said one of his daughters participated in the protests, that he is "very proud of [protesters] standing or kneeling, and we need to support them expressing themselves."
DISTRICT 7 — Joe Wingate
In 2016, Joe Wingate says his wife challenged him to take action when he complained about the public schools their children were attending or would attend. So he ran for the East Brainerd seat on the school board, saying the district needed a strategic plan to address academic and facility needs. A plan has since been put into place, he says, and he seeks re-election to continue that progress.
We believe he deserves to be returned for a second term. He is opposed by former human resource director and mediator Debbi Meyers, who says the district is "65% conservative" and doesn't believe those voices have been heard. She said she'll hear constituents if they vote her into office.
However, we know that Wingate — who is employed in higher education at Chattanooga State Community College after teaching in Hamilton County public schools — has worked closely with District 7 Republican County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, that he attends her district forums and answers all constituent questions, and that he retains her full support.
Wingate notes that since his election the district has branded Future Ready Institutes at various high schools, staffed an Office of Equity, funded computer notebook devices for all middle and senior high students, been one of the state's fastest academically improving districts, has seen an increase in the number of "reward" schools and in graduation rate, has had the state principal of the year two of the last three years and has seen its superintendent win a state regional award.
Constituents, he said, should compare "where we were" with "where we are now."
Meyers says she has a "heart to serve," will "listen well," will bring a business background to the office and will "respectfully challenge the superintendent's thinking."